The pundits are out in force, scratching their coiffed heads over the new phenomenon of mass public demonstrations breaking out all around the globe.
The demonstrators seem to be an odd, headless mix of largely middle-class, educated young people united by many different causes and grievances. Everything from austerity, unemployment and police overreaction, increasing authoritarianism and religious governance, to complaining about the banks, public transport and healthcare services, political corruption, rising food prices, economic incompetence and the sheer waste of staging prestigious global sporting events, or ‘circuses’ as the Romans used to call them.
Last winter Greece, last month Turkey, now Brazil. It has been noticed that there are shifting connections, vague similarities, but what exactly? And could it happen here in Britain?*
Well, if you manage to link Turkey and Brazil, why not add-in the Tottenham riots last year, the Occupy movement that spang up briefly in London’s Square Mile, as well as in New York and other countries, involving a lot of articulate young people? The causes of which are still being scratched-over, but which seem equally unfocussed. Elsewhere, you had the anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia, now quenched by insidious State brutality and the artifice of national revival; the Tea Party movement in the USA, and the Arab Spring now coming inexorably to grief; the Pink and Orange revolutions, and more.
You might come to the conclusion that all these manifestations of public discontent are evidence of a paradigm shift in human society. But if they have one thing in common, it is only that people want the monkey off our backs.
We are fed-up with paternalistic and authoritarian models of governance, inappropriate to a better-educated world of seven billion. Linked as one by the new personal communications media and enjoying rising prosperity, people are angered by the growing disparity between rich and poor, the failure of governments to tackle international disputes, religious intolerance and environmental threats.
They perceive, correctly, that in an increasingly complex, information-driven, borderless world, the old institutions have become unreliable and out of touch; incapable of acting for the general good and corrupted by the old corporatist model of global governance sustained largely by the USA; while, at the same time, seeing US hegemony weakening across the world.
We see the rich, protected by an increasingly unaccountable security establishment, their money salted away in liberal tax regimes, ordering their superyachts – literally taking to the lifeboats. We see those who, merely because they move other people’s money around while betting riskily on its exchange value, helping themselves to incomprehensible salaries and bonuses. We perceive with unease, the fundamentally exploitative relationship between capitalism and consumerism, with its hollow promise: ‘you keep buying my stuff and I’ll go on lending you the money’. We see resource depletion, weather-pattern disruption and environmental degradation taking place on an alarming scale, while those we empower to order things turn away.
Yet, at the same time, we enjoy the shameful distractions of a largely Western model of junk culture and grow fat and lazy in our addictive dependance on its throwaway products, and feel vaguely guilty.
With these mass protests enrolling millions in small acts of trespass, we can contrast the actions of one man: Edward Snowden, a ‘whistleblower’ of epic proportions, who is, ironically, charged with espionage against the highly secretive US security establishment he once worked for, in a case of ‘Spies vs Spy’.
The charge against Snowden begs the questions: except in a genuinely corrupt and authoritarian state, how can obtaining and releasing evidence of possible illegality by the state be itself illegal?
Should his actions not be protected by the US Constitution?
Is it not the security state itself that is creating the very insecurity it is so generously budgeted to combat? Should someone not point this out, if there is evidence?
Mr Snowden’s actions in revealing the hitherto unknown extent and probable illegality of interactive US and allied surveillance, very possibly not recognised even by governments themselves**; the revelations about GCHQ and its interceptions of literally billions of international communications (all perfectly above-board, old boy), the spying by Britain on its own partners in the G8, the illegal planting of spyware in pre-assembly chipsets and the surfacing just today of the probability that the intercept activity has extended to state-licensed commercial espionage and covert cyber-warfare, have been done, he says, for the very same reasons all those millions of people are taking to the streets and squares of Cairo, Istanbul and Sao Paolo.
It’s the same phenomenon that in the late ’80s brought down the Soviet empire and the Berlin Wall. People everywhere are demanding: release from patriarchal control and supervision, and accountable, smaller governments. As the institutions of state have lost control of the information nexus, so the people feel empowered, but in a nice way! No Winter Palaces or Bastilles are being stormed.
It’s all quite encouraging, really. But it won’t change anything in the long run. Government is the ultimate expression of human fallibility.
NOTE: This was written prior to the Maidan massacre in Kiev which led to the Russian incursions into Crimea and SE Ukraine.
** Unknown, that is, to anyone who has not yet seen the Jason Bourne movie franchise…